Where to Begin…That’s Right: “You Won’t Amount to Anything”

“You won’t grow up to be anything”… “If you keep fighting, you’ll be nothing.”  It’s been a long time and, when your 6 years old, the words get jumbled… the sting is still there…

…I’m jumping ahead.  Let’s just start from the beginning.

I didn’t attend preschool.  The neighborhood I lived in wasn’t safe.  There was no quality preschool in the area. My parents thought it best to keep inside, where it was safe. And, thanks to my Mom and Dad, I entered Kindergarten knowing my letters, numbers, colors, shapes and I could even do simple math and reading.  By the time I walked into Kindergarten with my Mario lunch pail, I was academically ahead of all of my peers.  Teaching me must have been a challenge because, between learning the alphabet and numbers, I was uprooting house plants and planting our corded telephone.  My parents did an amazing job serving as my first teachers (and I still learn from them.)

But, there was one little problem. I didn’t interact with any child my age until I got to Kindergarten.  (If you’re a preschool teacher, you probably thinking “Uh oh, social skills!” )  When I was ready for Kindergarten, my sister and brother were 4 and 3 respectively, but we were very similar in our behavior and mannerisms.  We got along.

From Kindergarten through Second grade, I don’t know how many fights I got into.  For all the academic knowledge, I would throw a hissy-fit if someone took my lego.  Another time, I remember sitting on the asphalt, angrily staring down another child because they had the big wheel and I did not (and that child was a friend!)  I was pushing, hitting, and kicking other children.  I got angry over the smallest things, and my tantrums would last for 15 minutes or longer.  I had also garnered a reputation amongst the other kids as being on of the three main “fighters” in our class.

Despite the challenges, when it came to academics, I was excelling.  I was reading books and figuring out multiplication problems like a breeze.  Many of my teachers saw that I was bright and, if my social skills would be on par with my academics, I would have a bright future.  However, one teacher saw something different and negative.  And she felt compelled to tell me.

One day, after a fight, I was sitting at my desk, doing multiplication problems. I’m 5 or 6 years-old.  Then, Mrs. X walks in the classroom. (No, that’s not her name, and the real name doesn’t matter)  She walks in the room, leans down over my desk.

What happened next has stuck with me.  It’s the kind of experience that leaves a chip on your shoulder; the kind of experience that, if I were to ever become a teacher, Mrs. X would be the teacher I would promise never to become.  

I looked up from my work and connected with her eyes.  Mrs. X calmly and firmly said, “If you keep getting into fights, you won’t amount to anything.”  You won’t amount to anything?  I won’t be anything?  What? Despite my confusion, what she said didn’t stick out too much.  Mrs. X had remained consistent with her teaching of me.  Everything Mrs. X told me was mean, negative, and demoralizing.  When I didn’t share, she angrily yelled at me.  After fights, she told me that I was a bad child.  I don’t remember one good thing she told me.  Not a single, good, uplifting, character-building, future-shaping word.

Of all of childhood teachers, she is the one that I remember because she told me “You can’t.”

Moral of the Story: If you’re a teacher, no matter how little they are, students remember what you say.

I tell my students positive words everyday, and not just “Great job” or “Good work.”  No, I say “Your artwork is beautiful.”  Or, “That was an excellent song.”  My students say, “Your a boy Teacher Gilbert.  You can’t say beautiful.”  I reply “But, what you made is beautiful.  It doesn’t matter if I’m a boy.”  And, for the children that push, hit and kick other children, I follow them like I was their shadow.  The moment they do something wonderful – like share a toy without me telling them – I sneak attack them with a hug, praising them “You did it! You did it! You shared the toy!”  I stamp their hand with a smiley face or give them a star sticker.  Why? So everyone that child runs into – other children, teachers, and parents – knows that, today, that child did something wonderful and amazing.

When my students grow up and, if they can remember anything about Teacher Gilbert, I want them to remember that I told them “They are good, they are nice, and they can learn all they can!

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